The charred remnants of the Nichols home up Swanton Road.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Recovery & Reopening

‘We can’t delay much longer’: Board of Supervisors call out flaws in rebuilding system for CZU fire victims

Among the core issues delaying the re-permitting process for Santa Cruz Mountain residents is the examination of geological issues that pre-existed last August’s fires. Says Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson: “If we apply the code to the pre-fire conditions, we run the risk of making it that much harder, if not impossible, for some folks to rebuild their homes.”

As the first anniversary of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire approaches, Santa Cruz County supervisors are pushing county agencies to move forward with helping frustrated and displaced families in rebuilding their homes.

Led by Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson, the board unanimously directed county agencies Tuesday to speed up the rebuilding process, requiring they act by Sept. 14 to allow for rebuilds, without needing to evaluate or mitigate issues that existed before the 2020 blaze.

“The pre-fire risks that have existed for years in both of our districts shouldn’t be addressed through the fire rebuilding process,” McPherson said. “Many of our survivors are underinsured and already facing a difficult time — if we apply the code to the pre-fire conditions, we run the risk of making it that much harder, if not impossible, for some folks to rebuild their homes.”

“We all know that the CZU fire devastated parts of both my district, the Fifth District, and Supervisor (Ryan) Coonerty’s Third District,” McPherson said. “Constituents from both districts have been communicating with our offices on how to recover and rebuild as fast as possible.”

Antonia Bradford, a vocal proponent of the measure, lost her family’s home last Aug. 20, alongside many neighbors in the Fallen Leaf neighborhood of Boulder Creek.

“It has felt like the agencies that were supposed to be helping us recover from this tragedy were dead set on fighting against us, retraumatizing us over and over,” she said.

While some residents have had success in starting the rebuilding process, McPherson clarifies that others have brought forth areas that need improvement and led to significant barriers in rebuilding from the Santa Cruz County Planning Department and the Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience (OR3). One issue is County Code 16.10, which has become “a major obstacle in terms of time and money for survivors to rebuild their homes.”

County Code 16.10 aims to implement federal, state and local policies to minimize injury, loss of life, and damage to public and private property caused by the natural physical hazards of natural disasters. Yet, those guidelines have led to many hoops for survivors to jump through, and step-by-step processes that elongate the chance to rebuild.

McPherson and Coonerty hope the board can focus its attention on the destruction caused by the fire, instead of evaluating the land from pre-August 2020.

“People have been out of their homes for a year, they’ve been trying to work through the process, and there’s no path for them to rebuild,” Coonerty said. “They’re just looking for a way to get back and rebuild their homes and their lives — we can’t delay much longer.”

Residents have cited the pre-application process, put forward by the planning department, as a major obstacle in the rebuilding process. Assistant Director Paia Levine said the process is meant to evaluate potential geologic hazards before issuing those permits.

Learn more about the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) and how to support and connect with this center for...

“The county geologist is focusing on life safety only, not looking at property damage, and focusing on landslide hazards,” Levine said. “Within those confines, we’re trying to move as many people forward as we can.”

Thus far, the department has reviewed 259 geologic clearances, with 53 needing more review. There have been 38 circumstances where a private geologic investigation was required, with 12 cases where it’s unclear whether the geologic investigation was necessary.

People have been out of their homes for a year, they’ve been trying to work through the process, and there’s no path for them to rebuild. They’re just looking for a way to get back and rebuild their homes and their lives — we can’t delay much longer.

— Ryan Coonerty

Yet, Coonerty noted, that number is only about 28% of the total single-family homes that need to be rebuilt from August 2020’s damage.

“We’re talking about potentially hundreds of parcels running into this geological challenge,” Coonerty said.

Levine believes this sample skews toward the less-complicated parcels, without slope stability issues. Currently, Levine said, the pre-clearances have taken approximately two weeks to complete per parcel — but that’s not what some of the CZU survivors have shared.

Bradford said she had to wait three weeks for her file to be evaluated for pre-clearance, and said some neighbors have had to wait up to four weeks.

“It’s just been continued issues of people not returning emails, not returning calls — they dropped my file in the beginning,” she said.

Bradford said she was required to hire a private geologist to evaluate her land, at a minimum cost of $6,000. When they came to Bradford’s land, none of the evaluated items were related to the fire damage — leading to more frustration and lengthening the rebuilding process.

“If my home hadn’t burnt, but the land behind had, the county would not be putting these requirements on me,” she said.

Julie Lucia, another resident of the Fallen Leaf neighborhood, said she had to take a leave of absence from her job as a first-grade teacher to help ease the stress caused by the rebuilding process thus far.

“We were promised a streamlined process and it was going smoothly until the geologic assessment,” she said.

THE HERE & NOW: Cement Ship and Wide Eyed will perform in two socially distanced concerts at Shanty Shack to raise money...

Lucia and her husband were told in April that they would need to hire a private geologist — who could cost thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars, before adding in any mitigating factors.

“We are up against a strict timeline put upon us by our insurance company — we need to start the rebuilding process as soon as possible,” she said.

With this measure passing, families can look forward with less uncertainty and more hope.

“It sends a very clear message to the planning department that they need to do this for us — this is what the constituents of this county needs,” Bradford said.